One of my favourite parts of beginning a new series is creating the setting. For medieval romances, this often means designing a castle. I frequently choose the physical location for the books, look at surviving buildings in that vicinity from the appropriate era, then “build my own” castle as a setting for the books. This is what happened with Ravensmuir, the setting for THE ROGUE. I thought we’d talk a bit today about my process in creating that keep.
This particular castle was inspired by a specific ruin, one called Tantallon. (Here’s the Wiki on it.) Tantallon is in Scotland, east of Edinburgh, and I visited it in the early 1990’s with a friend. We got there just before closing – which in February meant that the sun was setting. It had been a glorious day, and the old walls looked wonderful in that light. This was the approach:
And closer to the ruin itself. You can see the North Sea beyond, and in the middle of the picture is an island called Bass Rock.
And looking down the curtain wall on the other side of the ruin.
My pictures from the other side of the wall didn’t come out well, given the deep shadows, but we had a great time poking through the ruin (while the clock was counting down to closing time!)
Ruins of all kinds – and cemeteries, actually – have a way of haunting me, and this one did. Years later when I needed a setting for a new medieval series, Tantallon came to mind. I started with its remote setting and its long access road – which could be easily policed. I usually draw maps of my fictional castles, so I can keep track of the details. My Ravensmuir has extensive kitchens and stables, as well as lots of underground and secret passageways.
I don’t remember whether there were ravens at Tantallon, but I added a flock of them to Ravensmuir – to justify the name of the holding, and also to add to the Gothic sense of the place. I added hedges of thorns for defenses and a large ditch – a favourite medieval defense mechanism. Since the stables were extensive, and Merlyn had a great fondness for horses, in later books, the family earns a part of their revenue from breeding warhorses. The pitch black destriers of Ravensmuir have become almost mythic in their desirability by the time of the Jewels of Kinfairlie series.
But what was the family’s business beforehand? There are some caves and natural caverns beneath Tantallon, but I expanded them into a network. Why would a family need such a network of secret caves and a location with access they could manage so well? There are stories of smugglers using Tantallon, although these stories have later origins than my medieval setting. I decided that the Lammergeier family would be merchant traders, focused on the textile trade. This was quite an active business in the fourteenth century, as western Europe developed a taste for the finer textiles woven in the east. I decided that Merlyn’s family would have expanded their trade into a very lucrative medieval market – the buying and selling of religious relics. They were already making regular trips to Jerusalem, Constantinople and Venice, after all, where such relics often originated.
Religious relics were a bit part of the medieval economy. Every church needed a relic to sanctify the space – the bones of saints were believed to carry some of their sanctity and as a result to be a source of miracles. So, the bone of a saint would not only make the site holy, but create a reason for tourism. Pilgrimages to holy sites were huge business in the middle ages, and donations from pilgrims – often as thanks for intercession received from the saint after praying near his or her relics – funded the maintenance of the cathedrals and churches we still visit. Aristocrats might leave legacies to churches out of a fondness for the saint whose relics resided there, or in appreciation for miracles received from that saint.
So, relics were bought and sold and traded. It was a bit of a shady business, since there was no way to guarantee that this particular finger bone had come from that particular saint. The miracles were the proof. Even medieval chroniclers made comments about the questionable authenticity of relics – the multiples of relics, like three different skulls of the apostle John, prompted questions as to which was the genuine article. Of course, each church defended the integrity of its own relics, because its revenue depended upon them.
I thought it would be fun to create a story about a family who traded in such valuables – wouldn’t it be tempting to just tuck a few bones into the cargo of a ship, a few bones that would earn an enormous price for their relative size? I could see a trader being tempted by that. I could also imagine a son who wanted out of that part of the family business. What would the repercussions be? What would his own brother think of his choice? What about his wife? How could he use the refuge his family had built to defend his own interests?
I had an enormous amount of fun with Ravensmuir and with THE ROGUE, all sparked by half an hour just before closing time, in a ruin on the lip of the Firth of Forth.